Art in the Tree-Ring Lab

April 10, 2015
by Eric Magrane

Patterns and time are hinges to both art and science.

This is apparent in the new exhibit in the University of Arizona’s Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building, “Marking Time to a Changing Climate,” which features work by UA’s Ellen McMahon, Thomas Saffle, Kejun Li, and Jesse Chehak.

After a quick look at Li’s prints, you might think they are images of tree rings, ones that note time in terms of decades or centuries, reflecting patterns of growth marked by fire scars and droughts. In actuality, Li’s pieces were made by dragging a credit card across a piece of glass.

“Each tree ring contains a large quantity of information and so does a credit card,” Li writes. “I’m interested in making connections between these two different kinds of information, the natural and the artificial. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that with a single sweep, tree rings could be imitated so accurately including early wood, fire scars, false rings, fungus and so on.”

(Reader, take note, this is a great use of a credit card.)

These questions of representation, of what is natural and what is not, make an odd juxtaposition. As a viewer, is the beauty of the patterns approached differently with the knowledge that it comes from a credit card, or is the pairing itself part of the resonance of the piece? 

Sometimes art can make juxtapositions that science can’t. Art can make these kinds of associational leaps and create proximities—in content and form, and also in process—and can approach materials through a different vantage point.

Ellen McMahon, a professor in UA School of Art who curated this exhibit, drew on a large file of hemispheric images taken by researcher David Breshears to measure foliage cover. “I went out in the field with the research team, to a devastated forest in New Mexico,” she said. “When we got back to the field station Dave sort of off-handedly showed me a folder with hundreds of these circular images and I thought they were so beautiful that they could so easily be reconfigured into something that was really moving to look at.”

While Breshears and his team use the photos as a metric in their research, McMahon approached the images as materials with which to tell a story. Her piece, “Change Over Time,” helps tell that story by its arrangement of the photos in a pattern that mirrors tree rings and visually shows the large-scale loss over time of a healthy forest.

As I walked back from “Change Over Time” myself, I thought about how the play of blue and gray in the photographs made it feel like a mirror, a kind of metaphorical nod to the shifts in incoming solar radiation associated with dying forests.

“We believe that we are working on a really important problem in our science group and are concerned about what we are learning—that we are at real risk of losing lots of trees soon,” Breshears said. “Our collaboration with Ellen and other associated artists has been both stimulating and rewarding. The works produced are really inspiring and reach audiences that I doubt we would ever reach otherwise.”  

McMahon will teach a course in the School of Art which focuses on art, design, and environmental science in the fall, and the collaboration will continue in part through that class. She hopes to pair up design students with scientists who would like to work with artists, and use the wall where her piece currently hangs as a project wall for students. 

While the images that McMahon used are of ponderosa pine, juniper, and pinyon, a series of photographs of giant sequoia by Jesse Chehak on the floor above remind us of the grandeur and depth of forests, as seen with a dusting of snow and filtered light. Chehak had previously shown work in the tree-ring lab related to tree die-off in a Colorado forest near where he grew up.

Thomas Saffle’s large oil painting, “Present Time,” bridges two floors of the tree-ring building. In black and white, the piece lifts vertically 15 feet. A wispy outline of tree draws the eye up, and the tree’s full canopy is cut off from the top of the piece. The style connects with Saffle’s other pieces on another floor that invoke desert rain through gathering of black into clouds and edges. I was struck by their elemental appeal, filled with movement and momentum and stillness at once.

At an artist talk introducing the exhibit, McMahon referred to past National Endowment of the Arts chairman Dana Gioia’s statement that “art educates our emotions,” and this is precisely what the work displayed in the tree-ring building does.

As we continue these art-science discussions, exhibitions, and events around campus, I hope that we’ll think of emotion as the power to move, broadly. Bringing artists and scientists together should push us to think well past the first distinctions in which art=emotion and science=reason, and to imagine both art & science as collaborative endeavors— where science can be aesthetic and art can be empirical, and where both help in understanding our current world and approaching what futures we might put forward, what patterns we want to continue and what patterns we want to disrupt.


“Marking Time to a Changing Climate,” an exhibition of photographs, prints, and paintings, includes an eight-foot piece by McMahon and three works by Li in the lobby (open from 8 am to 5 pm Monday–Friday) and work by Chehak and Saffle on the third and fourth floors (accessible during tours of the building or by special arrangement). The exhibit received support from Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, the School of Art, and the College of Fine Arts

Chehak, Li, and Saffle will also have work in the MFA Thesis Exhibition at the UA Museum of Art from April 17–May 15. The opening reception is April 23, from 5 pm to 6:30 pm.

Read more about the exhibit in UANews.

Change Over Time by Ellen McMahon
Plastic/Wood by Kejun Li
Installation of Present Time by Thomas Saffle
Close-up of Change Over Time by Ellen McMahon